Editor’s Note: One year ago today — 0n April 13, 2020 — Carlos DeLeon, a 63-year-old Hispanic man, became the first incarcerated person in Connecticut to die of COVID-19. In the intervening months, roughly 18 more would die after contracting the disease behind bars as state officials scrambled to test, isolate and — more recently — vaccinate inmates and staff. At the same time, though, the pandemic has led to a record low prison population, allowing the state to begin planning for the closure of three prisons. Below, a look ahead at what’s next for Connecticut’s prisons.
For the past 15 years, criminal justice experts have produced a report forecasting the size of Connecticut’s incarcerated population. Most of the time, their projections were within five percentage points of reality.
Then the pandemic hit.
One month before COVID-19 arrived in Connecticut, officials predicted there would be 11,800 people in prisons and jails by January 2021, a roughly 4.5% decline over that year.
Instead, there were 9,094 individuals incarcerated on Jan. 1 — a contraction of 27%.
There are almost 3,500 fewer people in prisons and jails today than there were on March 1, 2020. On March 19, Connecticut’s prison and jail population dipped below 9,000 for the first time since 1989, a 55% decline from its peak of 19,984 in February 2008.
But with the good news is some bad: Racial disparities have widened since the pandemic’s onset, even as the prison population has shrunk. Black and Hispanic people made up almost 70% of people in correctional facilities on March 1, 2020. A year later, they made up 72% of those behind bars.
Experts predict that the low prison population is here to stay, thanks to criminal justice reforms passed over the last decade. The historically low number of people in correctional facilities, coupled with a heightened public interest in addressing racial inequities highlighted by the pandemic and opportunities at the federal level for better access to education and jobs, could lead to an even larger a shift in the state’s future criminal justice reform efforts.
Past and present state leaders are proud of Connecticut’s record on criminal justice reform, which began in earnest during the administration of former Gov. Dannel Malloy. But although the number of people in correctional facilities has shrunk, demands for equity and more humane post-incarceration policies have grown louder as racial disparities have widened.
This month, the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at Central Connecticut State University and the University Network for Human Rights released a report titled, “Connecticut at the Crossroads,” which calls on the state to continue reducing the number of people in prisons and jails while improving conditions for those who remain incarcerated, and strengthening reentry programs to ensure those who leave prison don’t wind up going back.
“We created this black box that, frankly, nobody in society wanted to deal with, and now we’re trying to say, ‘What do you do next?’” said Andrew Clark, director of the IMRP. “Part of our argument is, ‘You’ve got to dismantle all of it.’”
Much of the population decline is due to courts being shut down for a year; very few people have been added to the sentenced population since COVID-19’s onset. At the same time, officials have stepped up their use of discretionary releases, letting people out of prison before the end of their sentence while continuing to supervise them in the community. The court shut down and the uptick in discretionary releases, coupled with the continual release of incarcerated people who reach the end of their sentences, have led to the historic decline in the number of people in state prisons and jails.
Marc Pelka, under secretary for criminal justice policy and planning at the Office of Policy and Management, the agency that produces the annual prison population forecasts, said reforms passed by the legislature in prior years have put the state in a good position to keep its incarcerated population low. Those reforms help keep the system’s many moving parts in constant communication, which has led to lower crime, fewer arrests and a smaller incarcerated population.
For instance, collaboration between the Department of Correction and the Judicial Branch’s Court Support Services Division prioritizes individuals suitable for pretrial supervision so they don’t await the outcome of their case from a jail cell, and diverts people from court to behavioral health facilities if they are in need of treatment.
The DOC’s Community Release Unit is yet another example, Pelka said. As part of its process to review the incarcerated for discretionary release, the unit looks at a packet that contains an array of information, including police reports, disciplinary records while they were locked up and a detailed criminal history. They also review letters of support from the community.
In other words, the historic decline could be here to stay, and won’t shoot back up once more people are vaccinated.
“Connecticut is well-positioned to maintain a level in its correction population because of the work done over the last decade or so to implement effective policies and practices across the criminal justice system,” Pelka said. “The trajectory that we reach for the state is due not to any singular or, you know, a handful of policies, it’s really been a transformation.”
This year’s prison population forecast predicts the number of people in prison and jail will hover around 9,000 people through February 2022.
“As the deviation was externally driven and not structural, the system will, as it has in the past, return to the prevailing historical trend, which is driven by consistent, steady and conservative reductions in crime, arrests and admissions to prison,” the report reads.
Crime rose modestly across the state last year, but it also spiked nationally, in states that did not have as sharp of a decline in the correction populations.
“Although crime is higher and increased from 2019 to 2020, it’s still lower than rates were 25 years ago in the mid-90s,” said Pelka.
The drop in the incarcerated population has rippled across the system. The Department of Correction is planning on closing three prisons by the end the budget cycle. OPM’s correction population forecast is central to their decision on prison closures. DOC Commissioner Angel Quiros said the decreased population not only allows him to close prisons, but also reevaluate existing programs and shift resources around by better tailoring them to people’s needs.
Quiros said he was “very comfortable” with OPM’s forecast, but he outlined two caveats he thinks could lead to an uptick in the incarcerated population later in the year. One, a spike in arrests in the summer months — crime tends to rise during warmer weather — and two, what happens to the backlog of pending cases, the people who were arrested during 2020 and either posted bond or were given a promise to appear in court.
“How many of them will be sentenced to some incarceration? I don’t know,” said Quiros.
No more ‘cream puffs’
The number of people in prison or jail isn’t all that has changed during the pandemic. There has also been a shift in the reasons people are imprisoned.
Between 2018 and 2020, people who violated probation made up the majority of the prison population. But by March 1, 2021, murder was the most common offense for which people were serving time. Violation of probation was the second-most common controlling offense — the most serious offense for which a person is incarcerated — but the frequency of that charge decreased by almost 60% from the previous year.
“The individuals that we have in our custody are some hardcore individuals, hardcore crimes,” Quiros said. “The cream puffs are out.”
The shift could be because of efforts to keep people out of prison and jail for low-level crimes, said Karen Martucci, the department’s director of external affairs.
“We don’t want people incarcerated that don’t need to be, that could be safely managed in the community,” she said. “I think that’s what we all want to see with reform. You don’t want someone incarcerated on a low level crime.”
The department’s re-entry efforts become more difficult with a population convicted of more serious crimes, who have been incarcerated multiple times, or who have mental health conditions or substance use issues. The department tries to send those serving decades-long sentences to halfway houses before the end of their sentence so they can transition to life outside a prison cell.
“The vast majority of incarcerated people will go home. So whether they’re doing a 20-year sentence or a four-year sentence, you know, we’ve got to do our best to give them the tools to be successful,” Martucci said.
A recent study from OPM found that roughly half of the participants in the pool who were released from prison in 2017 were back in prison on new charges within three years. The more prior sentences a person had served, the more likely they were to be locked up again.
“Re-entry work has always been a risk-taking business,” Quiros said, adding that when authorities decide to put someone on community supervision, they’re hoping that person is successful and doesn’t continuing victimizing people. Granting discretionary release to someone on a misdemeanor charge is lower risk, Quiros said.
“But now, we got to be very careful with the individuals that we’re putting out,” he said. “I have to allow the victims to have a voice in my decision making when I send these individuals out and it gets harder because the charges are serious felony charges. And they’ve caused harm in the community.”
But at the same time, Quiros said he has a responsibility to help incarcerated people serving long sentences be prepared once they leave prison. And it’s his responsibility to shift the DOC’s philosophy from punishment to rehabilitation.
“It’s my job as commissioner to shift that mindset, that we’re more of a therapeutic environment for these individuals,” he said.
Quiros said the potential impending mass retirements in the so-called “silver tsunami” — where a wave of state employees could leave by July 1, 2022, when retirement benefits will be reduced — could lead to a philosophical shift as career employees exit and new, younger staff take their place.
“I’ve got wardens that have ten years on the job,” Quiros said. “It took me almost eighteen and a half years to be a warden. These are young wardens that we can mold and help shape, and switch that culture to where we’re more therapeutic.”
‘How much time do you want me to serve?’
Despite the drop in the number of people in correctional facilities, advocates remain frustrated that racial disparities have grown during the pandemic, perhaps reflecting racial inequities in access to housing — necessary for certain forms of discretionary releases — or due to longer prison sentences meted out to Black people.
“What the state has missed is the opportunity, especially during the pandemic, to intentionally target Black and brown people for release,” said Anderson Curtis, the interim senior advisor and policy advocate for ACLU of Connecticut. “They need to intentionally target people of color to address that disparity.”
Curtis was in and out of jail multiple times over two decades, serving short sentences for low-level convictions, he said, the longest of which was nine months. He was last released from prison in 2007, dropped onto Whaley Avenue in New Haven at the end of his sentence. In the years since, he’s made a career out of advocating for people with similar circumstances. But he still has a criminal record that he says is a “thorn in my side.” He has a job, but his record makes it harder to secure housing.
“I can’t go anywhere, because I’m discriminated against because of my record,” he said. “Like, how much time do you want me to serve?”
His point is that a person’s sentence doesn’t end when they get out of prison. That conviction causes people to continue suffering long after they’ve served their time, which ultimately makes the state suffer, Curtis said, since they’re not able to land a job and be productive members of society.
“People need an opportunity to come home and rebuild their lives,” Curtis said.
Last year, a council studying the collateral consequences of a criminal record visited York and Cybulski Correctional Institutions to talk with prisoners there about the ways they were discriminated against because of their criminal convictions. Most of their concerns related to challenges in getting a job or landing an apartment once they were released.
“Even though they were currently incarcerated, they were all thinking about what comes next after they leave,” said Claudine Fox, the ACLU of Connecticut’s interim public policy and advocacy director, who attended the information sessions.
Smart Justice and the rest of the ACLU are advocating for a number of bills this legislative session that would affect those who are still incarcerated. One measure would expand the instances in which sick people qualify for compassionate release from prison; another would make it free for incarcerated people to use the phones in their correctional facilities.
They are also supporting bills they think would address racial inequities in the justice system by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of a criminal record, automatically expunging a person’s criminal record if they remain conviction-free for a set period of time, and helping advocates hold state’s attorneys accountable in prioritizing racial justice.
“This work is righting the wrongs of harm that Black and brown folks have experienced for generations,” Fox said. “The way we talk about our systems and structural racism, and the way it permeates all the way down to an individual struggling to find housing, that was all by design.”
The recommendations from the IMRP’s “Connecticut at the Crossroads” report are similar to the justice reform initiatives championed by the ACLU of Connecticut. They center on using more alternatives to incarceration, making prison conditions more humane for those still behind bars and reinvesting the money saved from correction population declines into supports that make people less likely to wind up in prison.
Acknowledging that the state faces a budget crisis, the report points out a silver lining: by shifting costs away from policies of mass incarceration, the state can further reduce its future spending on corrections by addressing root causes of crime and giving people resources and opportunities that prevent them from getting locked up in the first place or going back to prison.
“It’s going to be hard,” said William Dyson, a former legislator who served as chair of the appropriations committee for 15 years and is currently the chair of the state’s Racial Profiling Advisory Board.
Dyson drew a straight line from the public’s apathy toward prison conditions and substandard medical care and “bastardized” educational opportunities in correctional facilities.
“Why should we care at all about this group of people who have already demonstrated that they can’t abide by the rules?” Dyson asked. “And my guess is, is that, excuse the language, we don’t give a shit. And then the institution manifests that.”
In Dyson’s experience, every dollar saved from corrections goes back into the DOC, often for overtime.
“What you expect to get by closure of a facility ain’t gonna happen — that you have a pot of money set aside because a facility has been closed. Not gonna happen,” he said.
Clark said that this is where a Justice Reinvestment Oversight Board comes in. Oregon and Louisiana each have reinvestment initiatives where a certain percentage of money saved from prison closures go toward reentry supports and victim services. Other states have figured out how to make this work, Clark said, offering Connecticut a blueprint, should it choose to follow a similar path.
Improving the conditions of confinement for those still incarcerated would better align Connecticut’s prison system with international standards on human rights, the report suggests. The state’s use of prolonged solitary confinement could amount to psychological torture on the incarcerated, a United Nations human rights expert said last year.
James Cavallaro, the executive director of the University Network for Human Rights, which co-authored the report with the IMRP, has visited hundreds of maximum-security prisons all over the world. He has met people locked in these facilities who made a career out of killing people.
“And I’m walking around, walking into cells with them,” Cavallaro said. “That’s because there’s just not this level of danger that requires that people be treated like wild beasts 24 hours a day. And I wish this weren’t the case, but a lot of that is racialized and racist.”
Cavallaro hypothesized two reasons behind the default in U.S. prison systems leaning toward abusive and violent human rights violations: the violence endemic to American culture and romanticization of “frontier justice,” and the racist foundations of mass incarceration.
“There’s a very racial, racist element in this, as a very dangerous figure who must be subjected, subordinated and controlled at all times,” Cavallaro said.
Life in prison is filled with indignities, said Daryl McGraw, a senior reentry specialist for the IMRP who has served time behind bars himself. McGraw recalls that the strip searches after family visitations were particularly painful. His children would come see him and talk about sports. He’d tell them to be good for their mom, listen to how they were doing in school.
“For that hour, half hour, you’re this parent. You’re parenting,” McGraw said. “And within five minutes of that visit being over, they take you in the back room, and they strip you. They take your clothes off, but they take the dad away from you; they take everything from you, and you go back to reality of you’re nothing.”
The timing is right to invest in opportunities that help people stay out of prison and lead productive and fulfilling lives, Clark said, and not just because the correction population has plummeted. Federal Pell Grants were recently reinstated for incarcerated students. President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan could offer employment opportunities for the formerly incarcerated. The potential infusion of cash into communities of color disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs as a result of the legalization of cannabis in Connecticut.
“There’s just a lot of opportunity,” Clark said. “If we don’t seize that in a really mindful way, we run the risk of going back to a status quo.”